From a local trend to a global phenomenon, and beyond

K-pop boy group BTS and British band Coldplay perform together at the 49th American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Nov. 22, 2021. (Yonhap)

In 2012, K-pop took a leap forward in the global music industry. Over the summer, Psy set several all-time highs in the music charts and gained international fame with her mega hit “Gangnam Style.” Later, the word “K-pop” was listed in the Oxford English Dictionary’s vocabulary list as “Korean pop music”.

A decade has passed, and K-pop is no longer seen as just a regional musical genre that temporarily caught the attention of a global audience. It has firmly established its roots as a major subcultural genre and is gaining international prominence as a new standard for the industry. This is not only in terms of artistic value, but also for the surrounding system in which the musicians are formed.

K-pop has spread around the world since the early 2000s, beginning with its dominance of the Japanese music market – which was then and still is the world’s second largest music market. It then spread to East Asian countries until the mid-2010s.

One of the key factors defining K-pop music that continues to show the genre’s growth potential is its sensitivity to the changing environment and its receptivity to new sources.

“K-pop idol music has its roots in early ‘gayo’ songs (a Korean term for popular music that people listen to and sing). Its main distinction was the unique melodies formed by fusing various global musical trends, such as Western pop and J-pop, into an original yet contemporary sound,” pop music critic Jung Min-jae told the Korea Herald. .

The group Seo Taiji and Boys, which is considered to have laid the foundations of the current K-pop music industry, debuted in 1992 with a completely new sound, mixing hip-hop, R&B and dance pop genres. .

Hip-hop trio Seo Taiji and Boys (SeoTaiji Company)

Hip-hop trio Seo Taiji and Boys (SeoTaiji Company)

Beyond sound, the K-pop industry has also been exceptionally vigilant in adapting and using advancements in technology to develop a highly lucrative business model.

In 2009, JYP Entertainment’s first attempt to break into the US mainstream music market failed. But beneath the surface, K-pop was already expanding its reach beyond Asian countries to Europe and even parts of the United States via the internet. Such media friendliness is an innate trait of K-pop that has made the genre global, according to pop music critic Kim Do-heon.

“K-pop has quickly adapted to changing digital technology and actively promoted music with a variety of self-produced video content, expanding its fan base in the global market,” Kim said.

Gradually, K-pop gained recognition from the world as its own genre. Europe’s first K-pop concert, SM Entertainment’s “SM Town World Tour in Paris” in 2011, drew some 14,000 fans over two days of sold-out performances. In 2012, Psy sent the world on a “Gangnam Style” craze, setting unexpected records in the global music charts and charts.

Over the past decade, K-pop has evolved and grown in a different aspect. With sensational boy band BTS in the lead, K-pop has overcome the seemingly unbreakable walls of the mainstream American music industry. The septet made history and paved the way for other K-pop musicians in the United States.

There is no doubt that K-pop is one of the biggest alternative music genres in the mainstream market, and experts point out that the next step for K-pop in its globalization is to seek sustainability. The key to this, ironically, is that K-pop loses its “Korean character,” according to critic Kim.

“K-pop is not just a musical genre, but the whole production system in which idol musicians and their music are carefully planned and released. It is something that can be adapted to n any part of the world. It is now unnecessary to talk about how K-pop could be used as a medium to spread Korean culture and is at a stage to discuss how gender and system can be applied to the unique environments of different regions,” Kim said.

“Gangnamg Style” hitmaker, singer-producer Psy (Herald DB)

In recent years, K-pop labels have increasingly held global auditions, where they seek interns regardless of racial and ethnic background.

Many major K-pop labels, including SM Entertainment, Hybe, and CJ Entertainment, have each announced plans to form and launch groups in the United States this year. While past multinational acts have continued to be based in Korea and have used Korean as their primary language, these groups will be formed in the United States to debut as a global group, according to related statements made by the companies.

If the K-pop system is an established economic model in itself, there is still room for improvement, starting with the question of its openness to different cultures.

“Key to K-pop’s success was its ability to mix and mingle to form a new harmony. However, issues of cultural appropriation and exclusivity still persist today. We are already seeing the influence of K-pop as a form of soft power that can bring people from different backgrounds together.To make K-pop a truly global music genre, it must become more tolerant and understanding of other cultures.Therefore , the less Korean K-pop becomes, the more successful it will be in establishing itself in the global landscape,” said Lee Gyu-tag, professor of cultural studies at George Mason University in Korea.

Rather than seeking its way to the top, as K-pop has done in its globalization drive thus far, perhaps K-pop’s power lies in its unique ability to spread upward. outside and intertwine with the transnational environment, according to Lee Hye-jin, professor of East Asian literature and pop culture at Semyung University.

“It’s rare…to present joy to a large number of fans in such a short period of time, and the true value of K-pop is that it can provide a shared experience for so many people around the world. at the same time,” Professor Lee Hyedit Jin said.

It’s also the direction K-pop needs to head in order to create a system where artists can thrive as musicians, not just parts of the industry.

BTS takes the stage at the White House to discuss Asian inclusion and representation and address anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination on May 31.  (AP)

BTS takes the stage at the White House to discuss Asian inclusion and representation and address anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination on May 31. (AP)

Earlier in June, BTS announced a temporary hiatus from group activities to focus on their individual lives and solo careers. While doing so, the members spoke about their mental and physical fatigue from the K-pop system, which “leaves no room for people to grow and constantly forces us to make music,” as the group’s frontman said. RM.

While commerciality is the essence of all popular music genres, critic Jung said there is no denying that K-pop is becoming more and more competitive, especially as groups have to give quality and maximum amount of performances within the legal period of seven years.

“These days, idol groups release about two to three singles or EPs a year, and it’s not easy, considering that many Western pop musicians or established K-pop groups, such as Blackpink, release a album every one or two years,” Jung says, adding such an environment doesn’t give artists time to mature as musicians.

Such a change in trend at the industry level is something that all related entities need to work together. But in the long run, critic Kim suggested that it’s the labels and their training systems that must first transform for there to be fundamental progress. In order to make more space for artists’ creativity, Kim said the training system should not only focus on honing their talents on stage, but on their maturity as individuals.

The members of BTS, who have continued to push their limits not just as musicians but as influential individuals with powerful voices, have set a fair precedent for upcoming groups, Kim added.

“Although there are still limits, I think the members of BTS set a good example for young generation idols. They didn’t stop writing lyrics and composing, but became artists. capable of spreading messages. K-pop must now convey such messages. There must be a philosophy, and rather than injecting certain ideas into trainees, companies must develop a system in which trainees can develop their own perspectives as individuals.

In commemoration of the Korea Herald’s 69th anniversary on August 15, the Korea Herald has prepared a series of articles exploring the phenomenon of Korean content influencing global contemporary culture and trends. Is it a one-time event or is it here to stay? Can South Korea claim pride in the works of its creative minds as a nation? The Korea Herald exposes the past and present of the Korean Wave and its future prospects. – Ed.

By Choi Ji-won ([email protected])

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